The year before I came to Moscow, Steve San Francisco had already been there. The memory was still fresh, and the wound.
If his own testimony was to be believed, he was a good teacher, though tough economic times had left him without the means to pay for his own passage to Russia. Our boss was a trusting type. He told crazy stories about his time in Vietnam, in a Saudi prison camp as an American special agent, of the Yom Kippur War, and no one believed him. As a sort of revenge, perhaps, he believed anything anyone told him without question. So when Steve asked for airplane money up-front on the promise of good teaching our boss agreed immediately.
Steve arrived in Moscow on a bitterly cold day. He had no baggage and looked as if he had just been ransomed from a pirate ship. Even so, all were hopeful he would justify the boss’s belief in everyone.
On the first day of class the administrator waited in the hallway. The paint patiently gripped the walls of the ageing school, peeling, but not without regret and a will to resist. Time passed. The class was finished, at first only just, and then eventually - a long time ago. No one came out of the classroom. Had they slipped out of the windows? Had they fallen asleep in the face of the nature of the English tense system? The administrator moved towards the door and opened it. To be sure, studies were taking place, but of a more anatomical nature. Somehow during the course of the lesson the teacher and young female had managed to lose their clothing and were now studying the nature of a passionate kiss. The administrator chased the two out into the street and phoned the central school.
‘Maybe it just seemed to you they were naked?’ the boss asked. ‘Maybe they were really studying?’
Hope was not abandoned. On the next day Steve failed to show up at all. When they called his flat he answered the phone, surprisingly.
‘Well,’ he explained, ‘I was on my way to class. I made it to the bus stop, but no further. For there at the bus stop I was presented with a moral dilemma. There I was presented with two Croatian refugees, homeless and without documents and on the run from the mafia. They turned to me for help and my first thoughts were of my duties to the school. I explained to them my dilemma, and in the face of my dilemma, their dilemma seemed greater and more dire. So I had no choice but to bring the two young ladies home and offer them asylum in my apartment.’
In the background there was dance music and the sound of happy young female voices.
‘Yes,’ Steve concurred, ‘they are joyful at finding salvation.’
And he hung up.
‘But what’s his teaching like?’ The boss asked. ‘Is he a good teacher?’
‘It would appear he is a fine teacher, but he doesn’t show up for class.’
It was decided that he would be given a last chance.
And he didn’t show up.
So another plane ticket was purchased and he was taken to the airport. From the airport he phoned the boss.
‘I hear there’s an opening in Ekaterinburg? If so I would like to be considered for the position.’
The boss’s countenance was one more of sorrow than anger – he was inclined to accept, but the office staff let him know that should he do so, it would not be without consequences – that he could sit there and run the school all by himself.
So Steve returned whence he had come.
The next year I arrived along with another San Francisco. He was academically more reliable, though not without his own particular character traits. The first was a propensity to be completely drunk all the time, though his teaching suffered not at all for this fact. The second was his great love for the American Declaration of Independence. Neither did this affect his classroom performance. He managed to teach with a bottle of beer in one hand and the declaration in another, and became wildly popular with students. He became less popular with teachers from Britain and other commonwealth countries because whenever he would see one of them, he would try and force them to kiss the Declaration. As a result of his enormous size he would sometimes succeed. And fights would break out in the teacher’s room. I became friends with him. But only on the agreement he would not try to force me to kiss the most beautiful document in the history of the world.
On my second day he took me to Red Square and attracted the attention of the already watchful local police. They refused to kiss the document. But not without demanding us to follow them on foot to the nearest station. And then asking us to wait outside. My friend was calm. He was more than that, he was so relaxed he threatened to slide right out of his clothes.
‘A little bit of money and we’ll be on our way, they just want a bribe.’
I suppose I should have guessed from the fact that they asked us to wait outside. The police officer returned with a friend who spoke a few words of wonderful if antiquated Shakespearean English, standard soviet textbook fare.
‘Mark me,’ he said.
‘I will.’ I was mortified. It was like talking to Hamlet’s ghost. He proceeded to tell me how I would be doomed for a time to walk the earth on Russian soil and not be allowed to depart till the foul crime of my corrupt documents were purged from my soul. I believed him. My father new all the city cops and mounties from his work and I trusted them all. Meanwhile Hamlet continued to describe the prison cell that Russia is and how his good will could aid, but only for a price. I had no money. My friend opened his wallet and pulled out an enormous blue 1000 ruble bill.
I was most grateful for the officer’s indulgence, and I bowed obsequiously in thanks, ‘Most humbly do I take my leave my lord.’
As we walked away my friend turned and said in more modern parley – ‘Looks like we bailed your country out again.’
I never bothered addressing the swirling tornado of emotions I felt inside me. Life goes on. A week later I returned to Red Square, this time with a representative of the Commonwealth, and the same police officer demanded duty. I quoth the few lines that sprang immediately into my beanbag, ‘it beckons you to go away with it as if it some impartment did desire to you alone.’ But it would appear he didn’t recognize me and when I refused to go with him he gave me my passport back and told me he would take his leave of me. I approved of his offer, ‘Thou cannot take from me anything I will more willingly part withal.’
Eventually our big pal from San Francisco got himself a girl and forgot about the American Declaration of Independence. I guess he found something more beautiful.
The whole time I was there a subject of the Queen, a certain Londoner, was despairing quietly, unbeknownst to all. In his youth he had been a big fan of rock and roll, meaning he had done a lot of drugs. And at one moment they all came back and ganged up on his brain. The academic meeting began much like every other academic meeting before. And then right in the middle of his thoughts on language acquisition in relation to a certain problem class in one of the outlying schools, he started to talk about Hitler, and what the world would have been saved if Hitler had been killed as a child.
‘And not only Hitler,’ he said, earnestly, ‘look at Stalin, sheesh.’ Then he excused himself, and left for his 4 o’clock children’s class. Everyone shook their heads and carried on with the meeting. The next day the school principle was having lunch with the fellow, and asked him to elaborate on what he was saying yesterday. He elaborated. In detail.
It would appear that he had visited Israel for the preceding summer holiday, and had met there with an archangel who had told him of the birth of some children who would be doing nothing good for humanity by remaining alive. ‘On the contrary they would be doing bad,’ he said. And perhaps it would be better if they didn’t and if someone did something about it.
‘But did he say he was going to do something about it himself?’ The boss asked. ‘Has it affected his classroom performance?’
It was decided that madness must not unwatched go, and his children’s classes were quietly taken away from him. At that time his Russian wife left him, and he was moved to a company flat with another teacher. That teacher came home one evening and found him lying on the floor saying things about fishmongers and maggots in a dead dog and kissing carrion. It was decided to put him on a plane to the United Kingdom. He was escorted off the plane by four police officers though, and handed over to the care of the British Consulate. What became of him after that is unclear.